Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Responsibility Greater Than Empathy?

Written by: on October 17, 2019

I have taken my time with A Failure of Nerve and dismissed all the usual reading hacks for this one. I decided this summer that this would be one I would read and digest slowly based on the high recommendation from several mentors. I have not been disappointed. I am benefiting from Friedman’s thoughts on our need for playfulness, our poor understanding of self, our addiction to data, triangulation and so on. This book has been timely for me.

Let me touch on my need for this material in my home life briefly. I have had a growing awareness that in this season with more vocational space that I may have a tendency to over-function as a parent. There have been times that it seems as though my kids performance means more or weighs more than it should. One of the most helpful insights from Friedman’s writing is that “children who work through the natural difficulties of growing up with the least amount of difficulty are those whose parents made them least important to their own salvation.”[1]Hello self-differentiation.

I have revealed in earlier writings that I have empathy in spades, according to Strengths Finder. As with any strength, there is great beauty and great danger to manage. Empathy has served me well in pastoring and building teams. It is very useful at the altar with someone hurting. And yet Friedman asserts that it may not be the end all, be all in leadership and families that it has been purported to be.

So which one leads and wins – empathy or responsibility? In ministry leadership contexts this tension becomes problematic. From my vantage point, accountability and responsibility are more lucid in the for-profit sector. Results are the clear indication of a person’s performance. But in the church world, this is more nuanced. Perhaps it should be.

Empathy has amazing gifts to offer the world but it has its limits too.  When empathy and feeling for the other suppresses taking responsibility, it can lead to dangerous places. As Haidt and Lukianoff point to, when safety gets elevated to an ethic and coddling is the norm, things begin to fall apart.[2]Surely this kind of setting would not be conducive to taking responsibility but would easily lend itself to the practice of empathy.

Putting your own oxygen mask on first is a useful metaphor for this tension as it has to do with “leaders putting their primary emphasis on their own continual growth and maturity…the focus on empathy, because it encourages primary emphasis on others, subverts the nature of the self-differentiating process.”[3]

I am not sure exactly where I would place responsibility and empathy on the primacy scale but I am grateful that Friedman has given me a good deal to consider. I can see the limits of empathy a bit more clearly. It has been tempered a bit. My respect for responsibility increased. I am benefiting from Friedman’s deep work and am truly grateful.


[1] Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2017), 213.

[2] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 24-7.

[3] Friedman, Failure of Nerve, 147.

About the Author

Andrea Lathrop

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, a wife, mom and student. I live in West Palm Beach, Florida and I have been an executive pastor for the last 8+ years. I drink more coffee than I probably should every day.

10 responses to “Responsibility Greater Than Empathy?”

  1. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Andrea, these books are great for our professional settings . . . but you point out how phenomenal they are for the way we parent and live together within our families. Brilliant, and thank you!

    Additionally, I appreciate how you life up the balance between Empathy and Responsibility. When providing pastoral care, this balance always seems to be such a dance. I pray we can all supply it as beautifully as you have written about it.

  2. Hi Andrea, just like you, I read this one very carefully and slowly, re-reading and highlighting profusely with the idea of going back to the text at a later date.

    I found the book helpful especially for my own personal growth. The one on anxiety was something I needed to read. We all know the biblical precepts on this but it was good to see modern language in today’s context shine through in Friedman’s work.

    I like you pointing out the whole putting on the oxygen mask first before putting it on our children during an airline emergency. That totally makes sense. How can we give of ourselves when there’s nothing in us to give? That’s always the rub, isn’t it. Scripture tells us to sacrifice, even to the point of death. I guess the tension can be relieved a little bit by pointing out that the results have to be left to the Lord. Something for me to think about.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great insights A!

    Dr. J assigned this book in our masters program so for my post that focused on the end of the book rather than the beginning so I can’t remember if Friedman touches on compassion versus empathy. If not then I must fine the person that does LOL but this would seem to alleviate some of the friction here. In either case I love how you always put into practice or at least recognize it very quickly.

  4. Thank you Andrea, yours is a great post and I like how you navigate through the tension of whether it’s empath or responsibility. Do you think the choice of either empathy or responsibility is contextual?

    • Andrea Lathrop says:

      Great question, Wallace! I do think it is contextual and is why I am so grateful for the Holy Spirit leading our lives. To know what and when to apply either empathy or responsibility to each unique context is something I need supernatural provision for. Ideally these things would work together and serve each other. To be empathetic when taking responsibility for ourselves or challenging someone to take responsibility is one of the goals I believe in spiritual leadership.

  5. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Andrea. In regard to empathy and responsibility I see both as essential but lean toward responsibility. The reason is because I see so many people playing the blame game and a mark of adulthood is taking personal responsibility. Entitlement is easily fed through empathy. On the other hand harsh responsibility without empathy makes for anger and rigidity. To me these are like being full of grace and truth, empathy and responsibility, tough love.

  6. Rhonda Davis says:

    Great post, Andrea. I do agree that this dance is necessary for the ministry context, but I also see this tension between empathy and responsibility as I work with young men and women in college, trying to find their way into adulthood. It can be difficult to remain empathetic to their development, while still calling them to greater measures of responsibility. Frankly, I am not sure we should try one without the other.

  7. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    As always, a very thoughtful and well-presented post. I like your focus on trying to unpack the nuances of empathy within the pastoral ministry context. Our recent local church staff transititon blowup seems to exemplify empathy to the max along with a definite lack of personal responsibility (for the “victim” at the center). Andrea, thanks so much for allowing us to watch and walk with you as you wrestle with the spectrum of empathy and responsibility.

  8. Jenn Burnett says:

    I think that maybe responsibility is how we ensure that we have empathy for the long run. For me the rabbit hole with empathy can take me to taking more ownership for people’s problems than they do for themselves. I know that this leads to burn out/compassion fatigue/ feeling used generally. I’m far from mastering this (very far actually), but I think that’s why I see the need so clearly. My question is how will we know that we’ve taken sufficient responsibility for our own self differentiation that we can walk in our natural state of empathy? Because it would also be true that living out that empathy is part of you living out of your authentic self. Bless you on your journey!

  9. John Muhanji says:

    Thank you, Andrea, for sharing about the good side and raising up areas you connected well with Friedman’s writings. I equally was encouraged by Friedman’s writings. I had to read and reread the book slowly and grasp exactly what he was raising up in our leadership lives. The connection now is How would Jesus handle these things?

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